Given the hysterical level of Russophobic rhetoric in Washington at present, it is rare for anybody to raise their heads up above the parapet and say that better relations between America and Russia might be a good thing. The prevailing belief is that the worse relations are the better: Russia is an aggressive and dictatorial nation with which it is impossible to reason; attempts at dialogue or to forge compromise will merely be interpreted as weakness and encourage further aggression; the only viable policy is to show strength at every opportunity.
It’s good, therefore, to see the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank which has historically had close ties to the American government and is generally considered representative of the American establishment, publishing a report entitled Reducing Tensions Between Russia and NATO. The report, written by Kimberly Marten of Barnard College, makes a number of quite sensible suggestions and demonstrates that traditional Realists haven’t entirely abandoned the foreign policy community.
As might be expected, Marten talks of Russian ‘aggression’ and raises the spectre that ‘Russia may seek to break the NATO alliance or even expand at NATO’s expense – to reconquer lost Soviet territory, to attain regional hegemony in Eurasia, or allow Putin to go down in history as the man who re-established Russia’s great power status’. She lays out scenarios which may lead to a military clash between Russia and NATO, including a Russian attack on the Baltic states. And she says that ‘many analysts consider Putin’s crackdowns on Russian media and civil society and his recentralization of state control over the Russian economy as the start of a re-Sovietization of Russian life.’
Marten isn’t, therefore, any type of Putinversteher. That would doubtless be too much to expect, and would in any case just cast her as ‘not serious’ in the policy community. But, in line with other Realists such as John Mearsheimer, she doesn’t think that current US-Russian tensions are entirely the Russians’ fault. She accepts that American policies, including NATO expansion, have generated real fears among Russian officials, and that Russian acts are as much a reaction to those fears as a product of aggressive, imperial ambitions. NATO’s decision to counter with military means what it sees as the Russian threat runs the risk of escalating tensions still further, reinforcing the Russian leadership’s sense of paranoia, and even producing a war between Russia and the West if there were to be something like a repeat of the occasion when Turkey shot down a Russian airplane.
This danger makes Professor Marten believe that improving relations with Russia is very much in America’s interests, and she adds that there are positive steps which the USA can take to reassure Russia that America doesn’t threaten it.
To this end, Marten proposes a two-pronged strategy; deterrence and reassurance. ‘First’, she says, ‘the Trump administration should continue to work with its NATO allies to deter Russia from threatening or undermining any NATO member.’ She comments that ‘To condemn NATO allies to face a potential new Russian threat on their own would irreparably harm the United States’ reputation for reliability and integrity, permanently damaging its ability to exert influence abroad.’
This is fairly typical stuff, and reflects the unhealthy obsession American elites have with their ‘reputation’. Precisely why Russia needs deterring isn’t fully explained beyond a reference to uncertainty. It just seems to be taken for granted that Russia is potential aggressive. This segment of the report, therefore, isn’t particularly novel or interesting, except for one section where Marten talks about ‘deterrence by denial’. In this segment, she writes:
President Trump and the State Department should use formal and informal discussions to encourage Estonia and Latvia to better integrate their Russian populations. Both countries have made real progress in this respect over the past decades, partly in response to international pressure. But more could be done, both by offering unconditional citizenship to a greater share of stateless residents born after the collapse of the Soviet Union and by expanding employment opportunities and empathetic community policing efforts.
This is an entirely sensible suggestion. It is often said that Russia might exploit discontent among Russian-speakers in Estonia and Latvia to cause trouble there and even justify an invasion. Rather than sending troops to the Baltic States, it would make more sense simply to remove the cause of discontent. Given that NATO members have committed to defending Estonia and Latvia, the rights of the Russian speaking populations of those countries have become their security concern, and they should do more to ensure that those rights are granted.
After having dealt with deterrence, Marten moves on to the theme of reassurance. ‘The Trump administration’, she says, ‘should take reasonable actions alongside its NATO allies to reassure Russian political and military officials and the Russian public that the United States and NATO have defensive intentions and do not threaten Russian territory.’ To this end, Marten makes a number of specific recommendations, including that the Unites States should:
- ‘Treat Russian leaders and the Russian state with respect’ – no more comparing Putin to Hitler.
- ‘Formally reaffirm President Trump’s message that the United States does not seek to impose “regime change” on Russia.’
- ‘Publicly state that the United States believes that Ukraine does not currently meet NATO membership standards and has a long way to go.’
- ‘Explicitly tie the planned deployment of US interceptor missiles at the land-based Aegis BMD system in Poland to Iran’s behavior in fulfilling its commitments to the nuclear non-proliferation deal reached in 2015. … To demonstrate that this BMD system is indeed designed against a threat from Iran and not Russia, the United States should reach an agreement with Poland that the missiles will be stored on US territory and deployed to Poland only if Iran appears to be violating the terms of the agreement.’
Marten also comments that, ‘policy decisions should be based on consistent, transparent, rule-based criteria wherever possible. Law-abiding behavior will deflect Russian accusations of hypocrisy.’
The proposal about BMD is quite interesting. Russians, as far as I can tell, simply don’t believe that the BMD system is designed against Iran, for the simple reason that there is no such thing as an Iranian nuclear ballistic missile nor is there any indication that there is every likely to be. Because of this (in my view entirely accurate assessment of the Iranian threat), it would be much better simply to scrap the European missile defence system. But given how much money and how many careers have been invested in it, one must recognize that the Americans are not going to admit that they were wrong and get rid of the whole thing. Marten’s proposal would at least allow them to keep investing in the program without annoying the Russians.
Overall, I would say that Marten’s recommendations suffer from a couple of weaknesses. First, they probably don’t go far enough to provide genuine reassurance – e.g. saying that Ukraine is far from reaching NATO standards isn’t at all the same as saying that Ukraine will never join NATO. Second, saying that US policy should abide by international law ‘wherever possible’ gives an awful lot of wriggle room and isn’t a very firm commitment. The problem isn’t ‘Russian accusations of hypocrisy’; it’s actual hypocrisy. The reputation on which Marten places so much important has been hugely damaged by America’s repeated breaches of international law. What is needed is a wholesale change in attitude, including a full-scale repudiation of ‘regime change’, ‘humanitarian interventions’ and the like. And third, it may all be too late. The Russians have by now lost so much trust in the USA that a few gestures of reassurance may no longer be enough to repair relations, and if coupled with a simultaneous policy of ‘deterrence’, these gestures may well be dismissed as entirely meaningless.
In short, Marten’s proposals are possibly too little too late. Still, they represent a significant step forward compared with most of the suggestions nowadays coming out of Washington, and among them are some specific proposals which are definitely worth pursuing. It is probable that Marten’s recommendations represent more or the less the outer limit of what is presently acceptable, and for that reason her report is definitely welcome. Having said all that, in the current climate the chances of anybody in power actually paying any attention are probably fairly small.